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Notes From A Hospital (19 – 23 June, 2016)

8 Aug

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This place asserts itself first as a very ordinary space, as though it’s been purposefully designed to seem mundane, to take the edge off its real function with a veneer of domesticity, something between a dated suburban show-home and a school dining hall lined with beds. I try to pinpoint where the dread I’m feeling comes from. Perhaps it’s the incongruity of this mustard yellow stripe crossing the grey linoleum floor tiles, or the slightly discoloured white panels of this suspended ceiling, where small swarms of black pin-holes prick through to varied depths, each taking its arbitrary place in the beige constellation. A cobweb strains and slackens like a parachute canopy, a delicate diaphragm of white glowing thread where a steel window-frame opens to the blue sky outside. A cloud the shape of a gigantic wolf’s head drifts over the low-rise rooftops of the hospital buildings across the visible courtyard. Florescent tube lights glare inside glazed plastic boxes, blue marble-patterned curtains trembling against the partly opened windows… Mainly, the dread lies in the medical machinery that returns repeatedly to the ward, measuring blood pressure, squeezing the upper arm like a velcro python. The machines attached to these needles and drips flood us with antibiotics, painkillers and saline solutions, extract blood samples. These machines test us, seek dark shadows in our lungs, root out the signs and patterns of destruction in our own cells.

*

Inside A&E I see my own blood collect inside syringes, glimpse scans of my own ribs, examine the stock market graphs of EEGs and pulse readings as I’m assessed and reassessed then run through further tests, just to be sure. I’m given painkillers and injections, laid on a trolley and wheeled out into the cavernous bay where our ailments align like vehicles taking spaces in a supermarket car park. It’s the early hours of Sunday morning. An elderly man with the visible bruising and dried blood traces of a head injury is asking for food with an incongruously posh accent, as though making announcements on the BBC in 1966. A youth, who it seems had collapsed in the street, is surrounded by a retinue of drunk friends whose red eyes startle in the stark florescent light. There is the intimacy of an elderly husband and wife acting as though they are in a private space, as though this might be almost routine, as though they might switch places on the gurneys night after night. A wall-mounted TV scrolls adverts and a scarlet ticker-tape of rolling bad news. There is a coffee machine somewhere, though it’s not clear where. And where else would one stranger approach another with the words “I need to take some of your blood” so regularly and with such bluntly pragmatic intent to see the action through? Extraction might be coded into this space. Does the PFI that rebuilt it once now draw rents from these aluminum and white plastic fittings, these oxygen canisters and uniforms, leased-back strip-lights and polished concrete floors, wooden desks and blue curtains?

*

In this refrigerated room the machine hums quietly among the pipes and platforms, the windows of the observation chambers. Always seems strange when the operators of a system clear the space before it operates, leaving you alone inside it. This is the CT-scanner with its turquoise floored, aquatic waiting room, its looped TV channel discussing accidents – a man trapped under a car ploughed into him by a double decker bus, a surfer in collision with a jet-ski on a rolling wave, collusions of random chance and sheer misfortune followed by miraculous recoveries. When I’m wheeled along the corridor with its peculiar scent into the presence of the monolith – like the central pierced stone of Men-an-Tol – I’m conscious of the solstice, of the fact that I’d planned to be elsewhere, at a solstice celebration, and instead lie here, my back pressed in its thin gown against a cold metal slide, my arms stretched back above my head as I listen for the voice that emerges from the white machine telling me to breathe in, hold breath, breathe normally, its magnets whirring inside the white casing like the drum of a washing machine, circling my upper body, scanning everything, from chin to groin, slice by slice, till somewhere, on a screen behind those black glass windows, I’m reconstituted, replicated in a three dimensional matrix. This might be the altar of some alien pagan cult, exploring the limitless recesses of the body’s interior.

*

Everything tastes of this one solution but I don’t know what this taste is, how to begin to describe it. Everything smells of it but I don’t know exactly how I’m taking in the scent, what the components of this fragrance are, only that in the combination of taste and scent it blends a sickly sweetness with a metallic edge – is something complex, alien and impossible to place on any previous axis of sensory experience. Mercury and over-sweetened rhubarb? Silicone in custard? A compound of artificial sweeteners and metal shavings? Copper coins sucked through a soft cloth steeped in pine fragranced shampoo? The contrast – for this is what they call that weird solution here – is intravenously administered. I’m told that I’ll experience the illusion of wetting myself, that a soft warmth will seem to spread from my groin to my knees and waist. The woman beside the machine is reassuring, has told me already that this isn’t real, but it will, she insists, feel very real in the moment it happens. This is standard procedure, to be expected, she says, and it will pass once the moment does, be entirely gone and half forgotten even by the time I leave this room. It is not, she insists, anything to be concerned about.

*

I understand that this machine reads my body better than I, who inhabit it, can. The machine is driven by electromagnetics and x-rays, sending its resonant frequencies through my cells and fibres, my soft organs and hard bones, slice by slice as I pass through its open circle. The body inside the machine, my body, is kept at the refrigerated temperature the machine requires. My nostrils and the back of my throat are filled with that indefinably synthetic alien substance, still to be properly named or described: silicone and rhubarb with saccharine, uncooked pastry in cleansed sump-oil, white truffle in volcanic sulphur, spinach steeped in phosphorus and copper sulphate. How do I even begin to describe this after-taste? I’m conscious that this is primal machinery, machinery geared to extract a fully illuminated body’s interior, an imprint or double lifted from my own flesh for remote examination. This is a revelation of the inner self: not those hypothetical coloured lights, the auras and chakras beloved of the New Age, but the true inner being of flesh and fluids, nerves and ribs, veins and arteries, alveoli and heart-muscles, in all of which life flows, a low-level electric charge like the static thickening in the warm air that precedes a thunderstorm. Where clouds gather inside any image produced, wherever new cells or growths appear, fear must always follow, to clot and accumulate among the relentlessly shortening hours and days…

*

When I return to the ward, when I’m pushed in a wheelchair towards the empty bed by an open window overlooking a small lawn where pigeons and blackbirds peck among the freshly-trimmed grass in a late evening sunshine I’d half forgotten was out there, I’m approached by a tall Jamaican-Nottingham girl with Nefertiti features and a crown of lilac-dyed braids tied up in a tight sphere on her head, like an Egyptian sun-disk. She wraps my arm in a velcro pressure gauge, takes a blood sample and pulse: unlike every other nurse I’ve so far encountered she follows the electronic reading with an old-school press of her fingers to my wrist, silently counting while looking at the small dial of a watch. She seems in charge right now, but tomorrow I’ll be chatting to her and discover she’s still two months from qualifying, and she’ll laugh when I tell her she seemed to be the authority on the ward in the first half-hour I spent on it. “I was just trying not to seem nervous”, she says. “Didn’t figure I was doing any kind of good job at it”. And there it is, our disconnection, me oblivious to her nerves, her oblivious to whatever I was feeling just then, swept into her presence on the medical process that had already led from ambulance to A&E, from there to a holding ward, and had now landed me here, on a specialist male respiratory ward in another hospital, her long fingers taking the pulse of the one wrist still unmarked by cannula needles. It’s 7pm already and she’ll soon disappear as the night shift drifts in, as new ranks of nurses, new cleaners and carriers, wipers, bathers, sometime wound-dressers and carers arrive, one after another: all those who’ll see us through till morning, one way or another.

*

He was a big man once, a hard man, most likely, judging by his talk at times, the kind of man who carried his own name – M.I.C.K – inked on the four finger-knuckles of his right hand, where it remains visible among the bruises and needle-punctures, the dressings and swellings. He’s lost 25 kilos these last 8 weeks, he’s said, and the medical staff have confirmed it – 25 kilos gone from his bruiser’s bulk while his features soften into vulnerability and panic under the brute force of whatever illness has its hold on him. When he’s angry, he verbalises his feelings in terms set by a physical aggression of which he’s no longer capable: “a crack on the nose”, “a punch in the mouth”, “a kick in the balls”. Right now, you can only imagine what he might have looked like ten or twelve weeks back, the big fella and hard-man he remains in his own head despite this new reality where he’s bent double, depleted, fighting for breath over a white plastic bed-table while his grey skin hangs, exposed and flabby, in the folds of his unbuttoned pyjamas. When noises come from him, gasps and wheezes and cries, nurses from Spain and Trinidad, Guyana, Sri Lanka and Slovakia surround him, hook up the nebuliser or IV drip, ameliorate his pain for a few more hours, but it’s clear that he resents this dependence, is reduced and rendered weak, yet knows there’s nothing to be done with this need but to accept the help and rail against how disgusted he feels with himself at needing it. The women, the nurses, too pragmatic and pressed to be fazed, get on with it and keep going, as the world always does in the face of our humiliations.

*

Then there is the beauty of this woman with her attentive expressions, working to understand the post-stroke broken language of a 64 year old man with close-cropped ginger hair, a man returned to a kind of meta-childhood, whose wife and sole carer died a year or two ago, clearly aware of the chasms constantly opening between his movements, words and the thoughts behind both. He gets up often, paces, performs a kind of dance to re-learn the co-ordination of his limbs and extremities, placing his feet in a grid pattern that he repeats, over and over, on the chessboard of grey and mustard coloured linoleum tiles on the ward floor. In conversation, when he can’t find a word, knows but can’t retrieve it from his blighted vocabulary, there’s a laminated book of prompts he shuffles through in his big hands until something clicks and the conversation continues, like a car being repeatedly jump-started on a driveway. This woman, her features falcon-sharp, her fringe cut on a ruler’s edge across a forehead framed by tousled brunette and blond-highlighted hair, is listening to him. On her wrist is a playing card tattoo: the six of clubs, a grid of clenched black fists, its significance to her entirely unknown to me, perhaps anyone. She has the air of someone who’s been through more than one life, that who she is now is only the latest draft of a work in progress, which seems to be all she has in common with the man she’s talking to. Whatever he was before this, before the stroke hit him and his wife’s death cut him adrift, neither of us can know.

*

It is my final day here, though I don’t know this quite yet. Right now, I am viewing a range of potential futures, measuring my current difficulties against the struggles of others – who have no reliable address, whose health is free-falling far beyond any depth reached by mine, touch wood and so far. Men whose lives are in some sense already mostly lived, what highlights there were securely fixed in the territory of the past. Who, then, is more or less fortunate here, and is this, or anything, even measurable or, at least, measurable in these terms? Let us imagine that the dividing line between this world of hospitals and medical procedures, this world where control is relinquished, half in terror, half in relief, this world of quietly dealt-with deaths behind curtains, of being woken from restless sleep at 3am to be plugged into an antibiotic drip, to wake and sleep among all the humiliations a body can inflict on the spirit inhabiting it…the line between that world and another, a world that is none of these things, a world where the illusion of control is granted…that division seems fragile as the tissue in an exposed lung. One here is well enough to leave but waits on the availability of sheltered housing; another aged 87, reads the Daily Mail in bed, having fallen through a table a few days ago to end up here, immobilised. Yet another is tethered to his bed by a plastic oxygen tube, alternately pacing out the limits of his leash and flipping through the sports pages of The Sun. For a few hours more we are all here, on this respiratory ward, distracting ourselves with the thought that there might be more years ahead, or some purpose to those that have gone already, taking all our breaths and heartbeats, our best efforts and worst errors, and dragging them all out to sea with us, as a tide gathers stones on its long withdrawal from a pebble beach.

Men an Tol

Vicious British Bullshit: A Few Known Antidotes (2014)

4 Oct

Sleaford Mods

The other week, Pieter Last from Rammel Club sent me a message to see if I’d be up for playing some Eastern Bloc vinyl records early doors and between the first couple of band changeovers at the two sold-out homecoming gigs by Sleaford Mods in Nottingham, a question to which there was only ever going to be one answer. I’d seen them play at least twice before, once in the days before Jason Williamson’s hook-up with Andrew Fearn, once after it, and the change between 2010 and 2012 had been remarkable. In 2010, Williamson’s persona, observations and potential were all there, but with Fearn on board, things had become very different. However great a joke it seems that Fearn just pushes the ‘play’ button on his laptop and stands back when they’re onstage, it’s clear that offstage, making the loops, something miraculous is at work – one after another, Fearn’s loops are so brutally memorable that it’s as though he’s hit on the dance music equivalent of The Ramones’ early catalogue of primal guitar riffs.

More recently there’s been something else, too, and that’s the energy that comes with being heard. Put bluntly, it’s hard to sustain things when your focus is chopped up by other commitments, one gig every few months, or weeks, between office jobs and the usual kinds of everyday shit the world at large dishes out. Even when that’s your subject – as it is very much Williamson’s – the energy of those two gigs in Nottingham were the product of that long struggle plus the sharpening of tools that has come from playing more gigs, getting the records out and heard – the purpose that comes with a sense that someone out there, after all the hard slog, is listening. The attention won by Austerity Dogs in 2012 has been consolidated in spades with this year’s Divide & Exit, both records full of on-point take-downs of three decades of political and pop-cultural bullshit. Songs like Tiswas and Jobseeker will make this clear to anyone who isn’t too invested in the present mess to acknowledge it.

Datblygu

One of the joys of witnessing Sleaford Mods in a packed small venue, in front of a home crowd, and not once but twice, was being reminded of other things I hadn’t thought about for awhile. The Welsh language post-punk of Datblygu came to mind, and if you haven’t heard Datblygu before, their 1988 masterpiece Gwlad Ar Fy Nghefn (‘Land On My Back’) is a good starting point, well worth a listen almost 30 years on from the band’s inception in Cardigan. Even if you don’t speak Welsh, the message will communicate itself loud and clear, much, I suppose, as some in the US and Germany struggle with following Williamson’s East Midlands streams of consciousness and UK specific references, even as they respond to the sheer force of what he and Fearn are doing. Looking up Datblygu last month I was pleased to discover that their mid-nineties vanishing act appears to have ended: an interview by Sarah King with core members David R Edwards and Patricia Morgan covers the band’s history, while a new documentary (in Welsh, but with English subtitles) emerged in 2012.

Datblygu

If the attitude and way with words of Sleaford Mods appeals, then there will be much to delight you in Datblygu’s extensive back catalogue and uncompromising stance, not least David R Edwards’ thoughts on being considered a poet. As King notes, “when I ask him if he sees himself as a poet the answer is an emphatic No. I fucking hate poets.’’ His full elaboration on the theme strikes a definite chord:

‘The Welsh national anthem says land of poets and singers. Well I’m neither. I’m not willing to put myself in one camp or the other. I like poems, I just don’t like the label poet…Creative Writing courses just keep the stupid universities open, making themselves and their professors rich and their students poor. Personally I write by observing the world, and by thinking aloud my own thoughts, via a pen, on to a piece of paper. This then reaches the recording studio which is simply a modern cave for modern cave people. I draw on the walls using modern technology. The music Datblygu create then makes a connection with other people. Large amounts of tobacco, and small amounts of alcohol, help oil the creative machinery. If I was gainfully employed, married with a mortgage, car and children, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. But I would rather be a writer than have any of that…’ It’s good to have them back.

Sarah Curtis (Snub TV, 1989)

Hearing Sleaford Mods run through Tied Up In Nottz brought another sound I’d not thought about for years back into focus, this time triggered by the loose resemblance between Fearn’s bassline and the one used on Manchester based King Of The Slums’ Vicious British Boyfriend (1989). Any resemblance is probably coincidental – it’s a pretty standard post-punk bassline, after all – and KOTS’s distinctive feature was always, anyway, the play between the distorted viola of Sarah Curtis and the tabloid-skewering lyrics of Charley Keigher. Like many late eighties bands, their recorded output is often patchy, the production doing their live impact a disservice, but there are tracks that still hint at what they were capable of. Bear With Me ventures into a strange territory somewhere between abrasive psychedelia, hypnotic rave and blunt realism: “Bear with me,/my best is yet to come,/and I am a liar/with a lot of material…/la, la, la…I got loads/la, la, la…I got loads”, sings Keigher, over and over, while Curtis merges the spirit of the Velvet Underground’s Black Angel’s Death Song with a feeling of having lived through one lost decade, just as another throws its shadow over the near horizon.

King Of The Slums (Early 90s)

How that next decade turned out has been the subject of predictably anodyne media reminiscences, a fake nostalgia neatly deflated in Sleaford Mods’ A Little Ditty, but it’s worth remembering that much has already been half lost to that reductive Britpop story of 90s UK music. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Tricky’s 1995 debut LP Maxinquaye, a record that managed the peculiar feat of being sufficiently avant-garde to feel like something we’re still trying to catch up with (if you doubt this, watch the video he and Martina Topley-Bird made to accompany Hell Is Round the Corner and consider how far ahead of the curve it looks and sounds even now) while also finding itself adopted as a dinner party soundtrack staple. “As I grow, I grow collective…till then you have to live with yourself”, drawls Tricky, aka Adrian Thaws, perfectly articulating the movements of a mind caught between political consciousness and outright paranoia: “We’re hungry, beware of our appetite…My brain thinks bomb-like, bomb-like”. All the while, Topley-Bird’s voice underscores the presiding mood of psychic fragility and potentially explosive threat.

Tricky - Hell Is Round The Corner (Video Still)

If Tricky’s Maxinquaye built its unsettling, alienated atmospherics from seductive harmonies, and found itself too often misread as a kind of hip easy listening as a result, Vent, the opening track on Pre-Millenium Tension (1996) made it clear that he wasn’t planning on letting that particular misunderstanding happen twice. Raw, abrasive, claustrophobic, like a panic attack in sound, Vent is an unequivocal nineties update of one of the founding statements of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s The Message. Its ‘don’t push me’ refrain is transformed from the socially-conscious statement of 1983 to a cog inside an internal monologue, a phrase circling a mind that’s coming apart under pressure. Just as Williamson and Fearn articulate the internal monologues of that post-crash underclass created by a fabricated (and entirely misnamed) ‘austerity’, so Tricky articulates the psychic chaos of the years that laid the foundations for this post-crash world, with its discredited institutions, corruption and increasingly dangerous demagoguery.

Tricky with Martina Topley Bird (mid-90s)

Perhaps it felt relevant to play tracks from 1970s Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland at those Sleaford Mods gigs in September precisely because what their music describes is life, as lived at the fag end of a discredited ideology whose adherents still cling to power despite barely believing their own words, let alone expecting anyone else to. The reigning assumptions of the 2014 political conference season must feel not unlike those imposed by Party bureaucracies in the former Eastern Bloc: badly scripted rituals, determined to miss the point at any cost. The substance of a dissident essay like Vaclav Havel’s The Power Of The Powerless seems as applicable to the here and now of the UK as it did to its original context of Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, as all this plays itself out, we will be subject to increasing quantities of bullshit to defer the inevitable reckoning. Luckily, wherever there is bullshit there are antidotes to bullshit, ready to be heard if we only care enough to seek them out and listen.

Footnote: Jason Williamson played Arthur Seaton in a voice-over recorded for James Walker’s Slap and Sickle, a film essay about Alan Sillitoe’s links to Russian dissidents in the 1970s, screened as part of a link up between Nottingham Writers’ Studio and English PEN, designed to promote the national Catechism campaign on behalf of Pussy Riot on November 12 2012.